A century ago, industrial potash mining and land-speed racing emerged at nearly the same time and the same place in the United States: Utah’s gleaming white wonderland known as the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Both activities flourished on the playa’s saline chemistry, which yields valuable minerals and a hard, level crust stretching for miles and miles, an ideal stage to push souped-up wheeled machines to the limit.
During the intervening decades, however, millions of tons of salt have leached southward from what became a world-famous raceway into evaporative ponds used to extract potassium chloride. The salty surface that supports the Bonneville Salt Flats International Speedway is now so thin and soft in places it no longer can be used to set records and soon could become unsafe for fast driving altogether.
But a potential solution is the works that the racing community and federal land managers believe could thicken the crust, thereby preserving an important ecological piece of the nation’s cultural history and heritage.
The Utah Salt Flats Racing Association and its nonprofit allies are pushing the Bureau of Land Management to establish a program to pump up to 540 million gallons of brine onto the flats over the next decade, hoping that it will deposit 1.5 million tons of new salt onto the depleted crust each year.
The proposal builds on an experimental “salt laydown” program in which brine has been pumped every winter since 1998 from the potash mine’s ponds south of Interstate 80 to the salt flats across the freeway, lobbyist Mike Swenson told a Utah legislative appropriations subcommittee earlier this month.
“We have lost so many millions of tons that it is not possible to keep up at the current scale. To reverse the problem, we need to scale a project that already exists,” said Swenson, speaking for the Specialty Equipment Market Association, a trade group that represents makers and distributors of speed-racing gear and has a strong interest in preserving the place that gave birth to the sport.
The proposal would require construction of new ponds and ditches and installation of pipelines and pumps at a cost of $50 million. Backers are lobbying the Legislature for a $5 million appropriation to help persuade the federal government to foot the rest of the bill.
Swenson said proponents are working out a memorandum of understanding with the BLM, outlining how the plan would work.
The project is worth the price, racer Russ Deane, president of the Save the Salt Coalition, told lawmakers, noting the racing community will raise $2.5 million.
“It’s iconic. It’s our history. It’s our homes,” he said. “It’s a bucket-list visit for millions of people across the world. It’s more than a place. It’s a mystical phenomenon. It cannot be replaced, but it can be protected.”
A changing landscape
The proposal comes on the heels of new reports by University of Utah geologists who have spent several years drilling and examining cores extracted from the salt flats in an effort to understand how and why the area has changed. The researchers determined that past pumping has helped keep the flats intact, but it remains unclear whether additional pumping would make a difference.
“There is a lot about what it does that we don't know, and there are consequences of moving around water and salt at a scale that has never been done anywhere else,” said research leader Brenda Bowen, who heads the U.’s Global Change and Sustainability Center. “This is an untested, interesting experiment on a really unique landscape.”
She would like to see the program move forward but with some safeguards.
“I hope that any ramping up of what’s essentially an unproven experiment,” she said, “be accompanied with detailed observation and study, and a growing understanding of how humans are changing this landscape.”
Utah BLM officials could not obtain permission from higher-ups in Washington to discuss the project.
But U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, whose district covers the state’s West Desert, believes it could work, citing the evidence that past pumping has built back the crust, and he has given the proposal his full-throttled support.
“The Bonneville Salt Flats are an iconic and historic landmark,” he said through a spokeswoman. “It has provided dramatic landscapes for photography, film, recreation and land-speed racing. The salt flats have played a dramatic role in our nation’s western expansion, in the development of motorized speed achievements, and has provided important minerals for our nation.”
Wheels and thrills
The salt flats also serve as a stage for television shows, movies and car commercials, generating $20 million for Utah’s economy over the past 10 years. A 100-mile footrace is also staged there, as well as rocket competitions and flight archery championships, where contestants launch arrows that travel hundreds of meters.
Last October, a Utah-based vehicle known as Turbinator II reached a speed of 503 mph, the fastest ever recorded by a wheel-driven vehicle, according to Dennis Sullivan, a leading proponent of the pumping proposal. But that achievement could not go in the record books.
In speed racing, records are based on the average reached in both directions to account for the influence of wind. The far, or northern, end of the speedway’s 13 miles of track has become so soft that vehicles cannot achieve maximum speeds on the return trip, Sullivan said, so the Turbinator’s date with destiny was denied.
Flats through thick and thin
The salt flats formed thousands of years ago on the western edge of Lake Bonneville but became the Great Salt Lake Desert after the waters receded 14,000 years ago.
The ancient lake left behind a bounty of minerals embedded in a perfectly level hard pan extending off the Silver Island Mountains’ south slope.
“If you ever want to know what it feels like to go to another planet, you go to the Bonneville Salt Flats,” said Sullivan, the racing association’s president and chairman of the Utah affiliate of the Save the Salt Coalition. “It's an amazing place.”
The speedway parallels the mountain range, stretching northeast from Wendover. Future Salt Lake City Mayor Ab Jenkins was the first to drive on the salt flats in 1910, when rail was the only way to get there, and Bonneville’s first unofficial speed record was set in 1914, when race car driver Teddy Tetzlaff pushed a 300 HP Benz to 142.8 mph.
By the 1940s, Bonneville was the place to break world speed records.
By the 1960s, the crusty playa appeared to be thinning, according to Sullivan.
Cores drilled in the 1940s indicated it was 11 to 18 inches thick then. Today, it’s 2 inches at the most, and so thin in places that heavier vehicles break through.
To racing enthusiasts, it is no mystery where the salt went. Up to 250 million tons have accumulated in ponds across the freeway as a waste byproduct of potash extraction, Sullivan said.
Bowen isn’t sure putting it back will be so simple.
“You can’t just sprinkle salt over the surface, and it’s going to accumulate,” she said. “It’s going in as ions in a fluid, and so it’s not just stacking up over the surface. It’s actually entering the groundwater system, changing the saturation, changing the chemistry and the density of the brine.”
Birth of American potash mining
The United States began looking to Utah’s West Desert for potash after World War I broke out.
In 1917, the beginnings of an elaborate system of solar evaporation ponds were carved into the western edge of the Great Salt Lake Desert, which was rich in chloride-based minerals that precipitated out of the lake over the millennia.
The mining operation gathers brines that stream off the eastern side of the salt flats into ditches. The minerals precipitate out in a succession of ponds. Salt drops out first in vast quantities as waste, followed by other minerals. Potash comprises just 3 percent of the minerals dissolved in the brine, but it’s where the money is, currently selling for more than $300 a ton and as much as $800 in recent years.
In 2004, Intrepid Potash Inc. took over the mining operations on 90,000 acres around Wendover. Most of it is private land, but, since 1963, the mine operators have held leases on 25,000 federal acres north of the freeway.
Intrepid produces up to 100,000 tons of potash a year, depending on evaporation rates.
According to Swenson, the racing equipment lobbyist, Intrepid has agreed to participate in scaled-up brine pumping.
“They give their complete support for this program,” he told lawmakers, “and are happy to assist in any way they can.”
However, at a salt flats conference in 2016, Intrepid’s Wendover plant manager Eric Rogers said the company would not be able to pump that much brine and that such an effort might not help restore the flats.
So what has changed to prompt Intrepid to climb aboard the pumping bandwagon?
Reached Wednesday, Rogers said he was not authorized to speak with the news media. Intrepid’s head of investor relations, Matt Preston, provided an emailed statement that affirmed support for the salt flats and the racing community’s desires to restore them.
“Doubling the flow of salt from Intrepid’s ponds would require significant investment in new infrastructure, including wells to access additional water and the construction of new salt brine ponds,” he wrote. “We are encouraged by this initial proposal, and we remain committed to partnering with the BLM, racing community and other stakeholders in future discussions on the Bonneville Salt Flats.”
Under the BLM’s mineral-leasing terms, the potash operator is to return as much salt to the flats as it pulls out.
The mine returned 12.8 tons since the pumping program began in 1998, according to BLM data, 7 million tons more than it extracted during that period.
In the early years of pumping, Intrepid’s predecessor, Reilly Industries, returned on average 1.2 million tons per year, but the rate of return had slowed greatly under Intrepid’s watch, to about 500,000 tons a year — still more than it removes from the salt flats.
Water for the current operation comes from a freshwater aquifer coming off the Silver Island Mountains northeast of Wendover, according to Sullivan. He said Intrepid wants to replace ditches for moving this water with a pipeline to eliminate losses through evaporation and seepage.
This water would be discharged into ponds, where millions of tons of salt are currently stockpiled, forming a brine that would be pumped through pipes under the freeway and discharged onto the salt flats, where the wind would spread it around. As the brine evaporates, salt would precipitate out as a rock form known as halite.
This brine can be no more than 23 percent salt. Saltier water would be too heavy to pump efficiently, Sullivan explained, and so abrasive it would wreck the pumps.
It would take about 130 acre-feet of water to dissolve the 1.5 million tons of salt the racing community seeks to have pumped onto the flats each year. It’s unclear if new rights to that water would have to be secured.
Despite the costs, Sullivan calls the program a win-win if it restores the salt flats.
“The mining company gets the P.R., plus they are able to get rid of all this excess salt that’s sitting over there on the south side of the freeway,” Sullivan said, “and it’s a plus for the BLM because now the BLM can tell people … ‘We’ve managed the salt flats and we have got it restored.’”
And, of course, the world’s swiftest vehicles could return to Utah’s salty dreamscape in their never-ending quest to go ever faster.